As Rick Graber sees it, the Bradley Foundation operates “in a world of ideas, and we fund people who are in the world of ideas.”
That’s one way to describe the work of the Milwaukee-based foundation. But it is important to add a few things to that description: The Bradley Foundation is huge – it has an endowment of about $900 million and it makes grants of $40 to $50 million a year. It is influential – it has provided funding sparking big changes in American policy since it was launched in the mid-1980s. And it is conservative – its leaders have never hesitated in using that label to describe its support of limited government, free markets, traditional values, and other conservative causes. One of its signature issues is support of programs allowing parents to send their children to private and religious schools using public money.
Graber, president and CEO of Bradley since 2016, told an audience at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Thursday, October 17, that the foundation tries to do what two brothers, Harry and Lynda Bradley, would want them to do. The two were founders of the Allen-Bradley Co., and they were supporters of conservative causes. Both died more than a half century ago and the foundation is funded out of some of the proceeds of the sale of Allen-Bradley in the 1980s.
In addition to its support of conservative think tanks, scholars and advocacy groups, the foundation is one of the biggest givers to Milwaukee-based causes, many of them non-political. Graber said about 30% of Bradley grants support Milwaukee area organizations, including large annual donations to music, arts, and cultural groups. Bradley also supports some community-based social services organizations. Some people might be surprised to see some of the recipients of Bradley grants, but Graber said they are all non-governmental efforts to strengthen people’s lives — and the foundation favors such efforts.
Much of the session in Eckstein Hall’s Lubar Center focused on the foundation’s support of school voucher programs. It provided funding that was a key to the launch of school vouchers in Milwaukee, which has the oldest urban voucher program in the United States. Graber said the foundation believes “parents know best” when it comes to picking schools for their children and “the more options, the better” when it comes to what schools parents can select.
“We want a strong public school system, absolutely,” Graber said. “But they should have to compete.” He was challenged on school voucher issues by some in the audience. He defended the fact that Bradley does not provide grants to deal with public school needs. He said the fact that private schools taking voucher students weren’t getting results that were much different than public schools did not change his view that the voucher schools were offering a lot to their students, including things that can’t be measured by test scores.
Graber was the American ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2006 to 2009, during the administration of President George W. Bush. Speaking for himself, he said he disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision to pull back American forces along the Turkish-Syrian border. He said the US has to stand by its allies and play a leading role in the world. Asked about Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Graber said, “I’m of the view that Putin is an evil man. . . They only way to play ball with Vladimir Putin is to play hardball.”
Graber said that both he and foundation agree with Trump on many issues and not on some issues. He said free trade was the best example of an area where they would disagree. Bradley supports free trade and not the kinds of tariffs Trump has imposed.
Before taking the Bradley position, Graber was an executive of Honeywell International. He has also in the past been president and CEO of the Milwaukee law firm of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren and he is a past chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
“Democracies are messy, they’re inherently messy,” Graber said. But he said America still offers more opportunity to people than any other country.
It’s harder these days to discuss ideas with a lot of people, Graber said, given the polarization and emotionalism of political discourse. That is unfortunate, he said. That’s especially true if you are seeking to support the world of ideas.
Video of the one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.